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Can we be sure Covid-19 cases are falling?

The latest data from Scotland gives us reason to be cautiously optimistic that the current wave has peaked.

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Remember back at the start of 2020, when other countries, like Italy, were “a couple of weeks ahead” of the UK in their Covid-19 epidemics? Despite this being repeated over and over in the press, we didn’t do much about it, but at least we were forewarned.

Now, amid our third Covid wave driven by the newer Delta variant of the coronavirus, there are more tidings from the future – but unlike the warnings from early in the pandemic, they might constitute very good news.

As an Edinburgh native, I’m happy to report that the encouraging data from the future come from Scotland, which is ahead of the UK as a whole in its third wave. Scotland’s coronavirus cases peaked in the first days of July and have been in precipitous decline ever since. For many Covid hawks and worriers, it looked too good to be true: could this be some kind of statistical artefact or aberration? Could the numbers be due to differences in testing or to some other explanation that didn’t really mean fewer people were infected with the virus?

Today, we saw the latest evidence from the Office for National Statistics infection survey, which helps answer those questions.

The survey asks a random sample of households to send in nose and throat swabs for testing (this is how we get weekly information about the number of people in the country being infected with Covid). The random part is crucial: it’s not a matter of self-selection, where some people might go out of their way to get – or to avoid – a test, skewing the numbers one way or another. The ONS survey numbers can thus be used to confirm or contradict the general testing figures which we have concentrated on in the past weeks.

Of course, because data take a while to analyse and release, the ONS survey is a tad behind. There’s a lag of about a week – and that’s the key here. Given that Scottish rates have been declining for a while, the lag means that the ONS survey data can be compared to the decline. The decline elsewhere in the UK is too recent for the ONS data to be able to confirm the trend.

[see also: The fall in UK Covid-19 cases isn’t due to less testing]

What does the ONS data tell us about the current situation in Scotland? For the first time in the current wave, it confirms that rates in Scotland have declined. In the week up to the 17 July, 1 in 80 people in Scotland were infected; up to 24 July, that number stood at 1 in 110. 

That’s very exciting news, because we’ve seen those testing numbers – with a few blips here and there – decline in England and Wales too (the rates in Northern Ireland seem to have peaked but don’t show a decline).

The other positive news from Scotland, as the Economist’s Mike Bird has pointed out, is that hospitalisations are going the same way as cases: downwards. If cases really are declining, it would be bizarre to see hospitalisations stay static or increase; that they’re on the way down is another piece of evidence that the general decline is real.

The question is: why? Why would there have been a spike in rates followed by a sudden decline?

It’s probably silly to speculate at this point: all sorts of survey, mobility and other data will have to be analysed carefully to work out what happened. Did the Euros, with everyone crowding into pubs and living rooms to watch the football, cause the spike in recent weeks? Some age trends suggest that might be so. Could the decline be due to the weather? I’m told it’s been very much “taps aff” weather in Scotland during July, so more people are outside and are thus more protected from the virus. Could it be schools? The summer holidays begin earlier in Scotland than in the rest of the UK – though perhaps not early enough to explain the decline in rates from the very start of July.

Equally importantly, could things rapidly get worse again? Absolutely. It’s possible that we’ll soon see cases increase due to the full reopening in England on 19 July. The decision from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to vaccinate only extremely clinically vulnerable children from age 12 to 18 – and to prohibit parents of other under-18s to decide with their kids whether or not to get them jabbed – means that we’ll struggle to reach full herd immunity, and there’ll be an increased risk of more outbreaks in schools when pupils return.

But it’s nice to take a moment to focus on the good news. The ONS survey – a lovely example, by the way, of the different UK nations working together to produce comparable data – should make us (cautiously) optimistic. The critical thing now is to work out what’s causing the decline – and act on it.

Stuart Ritchie is a psychologist at King’s College London and the author of Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth

How badly have deforestation and development hit the Amazon rainforest?

Thousands of square miles of rainforest have been destroyed for the purposes of city expansion or to the benefit of the logging industry.

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Decades of deforestation, wildfires and political wrangling for either corporate or electoral gain have taken their toll on the Amazon rainforest, and international researchers claim parts of it now emit more carbon than they absorb.

Data from the University of Maryland, which employs satellite imagery, enables us to discern where deforestation and tree loss have been most pronounced within the Amazon biome.

Tree clearing has taken its toll on the Amazon rainforest
Areas of significant tree loss within the Amazon biome between 2000 and 2020
"Change from a forest to non-forest state during the period 2000-2020". Published by Hansen, Potapov, Moore et al of the University of Maryland

In 2020, Brazil’s space agency reported that deforestation had surged to its highest rate since 2008, with thousands of miles of rainforest destroyed for city expansion or the logging industry. 

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, can be held responsible for the increasing rates of deforestation. In his election campaign in 2018 he promised to reverse environmental protection schemes to encourage development in the region. 

 Ben Walker is a data journalist at the New Statesman

Police forces are still failing to improve their record on race – why?

White people are more likely than black people to have taken drugs in the past year, but black people were 2.4 times more likely to have been stopped and searched on suspicion of possession.

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The Home Affairs Select Committee has released a hard-hitting report into racial disparities in policing. The big talking point of the report is surely the jaw-dropping finding that the racial disparity in stop and searches – black people remain nine times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched in England and Wales  is worse now than it was at the time of the Macpherson report 22 years ago. This disparity cannot reasonably be justfied through data-led policing: as the report notes, white people are more likely than black people to have taken drugs in the past year, but black people were 2.4 times more likely to have been stopped and searched on suspicion of possession than white people.

Some of that is about wider attitudes in society. I have been stopped and searched on suspicion of possession. I've also had people approach me trying to buy drugs in locations as varied as Finsbury Park bus station, the Midland Hotel in Manchester, Brighton Pier, the University of Oxford, and on Whitehall. Part of the reason police stop and search black people on the suspicion of possession more often than white people is that many people's idea of a drug dealer is someone with dark skin.

But there has also been a failure to tackle the problem in the police specifically, not helped by the unpicking of some partially successful measures implemented by Theresa May to improve the use of stop and search.

If you compare the performance of individual police forces, and the repercussions for failure, to that of schools, the reason this problem hasn't been tackled is obvious. When a secondary school's pupils graduate without passing grades in English and Maths, we don't have a debate about whether or not the concept of a school is good or bad. That individual school and its leadership face consequences for the failure to improve its pupils performances.

Yet when a police force is found to have failed  to have stopped and searched in a disproportionate way, to have policed a peaceful vigil in a cack-handed manner, to have slowed down and frustrated an inquiry into its own corruption, or in the case of some police forces to have done all three  nothing much happens. We have an abstract debate about whether policing is good, or whether stop and search works. Quite literally everyone in the House of Commons thinks that  evidence-led stop and search can be effective in reducing crime. But if your fire alarm fails to go off when your kitchen is ablaze, you don't have a debate about whether or not fire alarms are a good thing, you change the fire alarm.

And if a school gets a bad Ofsted review, then the headteacher's job is at risk. The flipside, too, is that both the government and opposition parties have serious debates about how to improve education, and how to reward excellence in teaching. All too often, British politicians act as if "excellent policing" is a contradiction in terms, as if the only lever politicians can pull is to improve the system is to give the police more money. Until that changes, we can expect many more reports like this one.

[see also: The Tory crime strategy is either lock them up or lock them down − and neither one is working]

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

Podcast: Does the world need to learn to live with China?

Jeremy Cliffe in Berlin and Emily Tamkin in Washington, DC host the New Statesman's weekly global affairs podcast, World Review

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Historian and economist Adam Tooze joins Jeremy Cliffe in Berlin and Emily Tamkin in Washington, DC to talk about his New Statesman cover story on the West’s relationship with China. They talk about who China's allies are and what impact climate change will have on geopolitics.

Then, in You Ask Us, they take a listener’s question on how green finance is changing neo-liberalism.

Listen now

If you have a question for You Ask Us, you can email podcasts@newstatesman.co.uk.

World Review publishes a new episode every Friday and is available on all major podcast platforms. Listen and subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle PodcastsAcast, and more. Or you can access the RSS feed directly here: https://rss.acast.com/world-review.

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Why there will never be another cricket writer like John Woodcock

The late Times journalist enhanced the sport with writing of such grace and honesty that even grizzled professionals stood to attention when he was on parade.

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Nobody, said the composer Sibelius, ever raised a statue to a critic. But when the cricket writer John Woodcock died on 18 July in the Hampshire village of Longparish, where his father had been the rector, and where “the Sage” had lived throughout his 94 years, the monument of words reached the top tier of the Lord’s pavilion. A fine innings had closed, and so too had a beautiful chapter in the history of cricket, a game he enhanced with writing of such grace and honesty that even grizzled professionals, suspicious of those untouched by the heat of conflict, stood to attention when he was on parade.

For “Wooders” was the last remaining member of the quartet of voices who established the tradition of writing and reporting on cricket, from WG Grace to the Hundred – the new competition aimed at younger spectators that the England and Wales Cricket Board began three days after his death. As one of his oldest friends said, it was as if he had slipped away in his sleep to avoid the indignity of witnessing its arrival. The Hundred, an ahistorical barrel of tripe, dreamt up by marketing men, represented everything Woodcock was not. A world in which batsmen become “batters” was never one he would live in happily.

Educated in Oxford, at the Dragon school, “Teddy’s”, and Trinity College, Woodcock revered the three men whose words carried the summer game far and wide. Neville Cardus was the aesthete, whose rhapsodic essays in the Manchester Guardian seemed to be composed up among the stars so high. EW “Jim” Swanton of the Daily Telegraph appointed himself cricket’s one-man Court of Appeal. Arlott, the Hampshire countryman, brought a touch of poetry and melancholy to the glory days of Test Match Special.

Those were mighty boots to fill, yet fill them he did. For three decades, between 1954 and 1987, readers of the Times savoured match reporting of unsurpassed clarity and unadvertised elegance. His prose, supple and uncluttered, never added unearned weight. Like Brian Glanville, the football writer who turns 90 in September, “Wooders” was acknowledged by his peers to be the most reliable witness to the sport he loved.

“The great thing about Johnny,” said Alan Lee, who succeeded him as Times cricket correspondent, “was that he never learned how to write an intro!” It was meant as high praise. Woodcock’s pieces emerged, as rivers do, like springs, gathering water as they meander through the meadows. By the time readers had finished his report of a day’s play, however, they knew everything worth knowing about the performance. As the cricket commentator Henry Blofeld noted, he would also have spotted a couple of things others had missed.

A self-contained man, who considered emotional excess to be unmanly, Woodcock was never a dry stick. Towards the end of his time as the Times’s essayist emeritus, he told readers that if the England players who had thrown jelly beans on to the pitch at Trent Bridge in 2007 to distract the Indian batsmen insisted on behaving like infants, they should play the next Test match in short pants. Why, he wondered on another occasion, did an England bowler wear a wrist watch? The Grand Stand clock told the time all day long. In his final days he could never understand why Jofra Archer, the current England fast bowler, wore enough gold round his neck to service the economy of a Caribbean island.

One day at Lord’s, David Green, an expansive opening batsman for Lancashire and Gloucestershire who had joined the ranks of reporters, wheezed into the press box after a night of continuous libation to see that Middlesex required two wickets for victory. “Knock his poles out,” he panted in the direction of the bowling team, “so we can all fuck off home”. “Ah yes,” said Wooders, “as dear old Jim used to say!”

Woodcock liked Green, and not only because “Greeny” was an Oxford man. He was tolerant of human frailty, and disposed to forgiveness, as the Gospels encourage us all to be. Those he cared little for, he would “let go outside off stump”. An absolute rotter might be called “only quite a nice chap”. Gentle in manner, he was modest in speech. Humankind has not yet reached such a state of perfection that we can afford to ignore such qualities.

There will never be another cricket writer like Wooders. The all-seeing eye of television has transformed coverage of all sports. Then there is the distorting mirror of social media, which insists that all must have voices, no matter how shrill, and all voices are equal. The authority of the single voice, which draws its strength from long observation, and therefore acquires a sense of perspective, is valued less highly. The restraint which coloured Woodcock’s writing is now held to be a form of snobbery, which, in a defiantly demotic world, is the greatest sin of all.

He saw all the greats of the postwar era, and befriended many in his salad days. They played by Chatham House rules, and Johnny takes a few secrets with him. He had a particular regard for the three knights, Alec Bedser, Leonard Hutton and Colin Cowdrey, and maintained a boyish devotion to the dashing batsmanship of Denis Compton. 

Woodcock’s was a life of modesty, dignity, and faith. He would recognise the benediction of another Oxonian, Cardinal Newman, who adapted the old prayer in The Dream of Gerontius: “Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul.”

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